Courtesy J. MARK JACKSON
I was a soldier, and I went to war. By and by, I became known as a veteran. My civilian career progressed, my family grew, and the Army drifted into the gray mist of memory. But the experience of military service leaves an indelible imprint on the psyche and soul of each soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine.STARGATECHRIS/ GETTY IMAGES
What is it like, on a day-to-day basis, to be a veteran? To this Army veteran, it means all the following and more:
- Being surprised by how much Fourth of July fireworks sound like a mortar attack …
- … and how much a nail gun sounds startlingly like the bark of an AK-47 when heard in the distance.
- Turning to Advil as the narcotic of choice for a bad back and creaky bones, each earned like an invisible Purple Heart.
- Watching the evening news and feeling guilty for not being beside the soldiers fighting in the story …
- … but being grateful the country doesn’t still require my service, because it was always sweltering hot and I could no longer keep up physically. This is a poignant realization for any former soldier.
- Waking up desperately searching for my rifle while my wife softly says, “It’s all right; it’s all right. You are home.”
- Finding a lump in my throat and tears welling in my eyes when I see images of a crying mother or wife holding a flag folded into a triangle.
- Having a mother say, “Thank you for your service. Because you served, my son did not have to.” Really?
- Finding the term hero applied too liberally. Audie Murphy (the most decorated combat soldier in World War II) was a hero. We were soldiers.
- Wondering, when I forget how I filed my tax return the previous year, if I am suffering from a case of undiagnosed traumatic brain injury or if I just forgot.
- Wondering, when I miss words in a conversation, whether it’s hearing loss from the close rattle of a .50-caliber machine gun or I was just not paying attention.
- Experiencing a faint gag reflex when Girl Scouts try to sell me cookies, though I loved them for sending countless boxes of cookies to the theater of war. It’s not their fault I made a pig of myself on their generosity.
- Feeling positive about the next strong and dedicated generation of future veterans to whom we handed the baton of service. You may not know it, but these famous people are veterans.
- Having a cracking, faltering voice when speaking of wartime events that trigger strong emotions, no matter how many times I speak of them.STARGATECHRIS/ GETTY IMAGES
- Forever being identified as a “military person” based solely on an upright posture and a shoulders-back gait.
- Buying a red paper poppy whenever I see another veteran selling them, and calling him “brother” when the exchange is made.
- Being unable to throw those paper poppies away, ever. They seem somehow too sacred to desecrate.
- Feeling a surge of engulfing pride, like a warm shiver, when the American flag passes or during the singing of the national anthem.
- Surviving a hostile staff meeting by saying to myself, “It has all been easy since …” and filling in the blank with the battle of my choice.
- Feeling slightly self-conscious at my child’s school on Veterans Day, but also feeling important and honored.
- Maintaining a slightly obsessive fetish with how a bed is made, with emphasis on the corners.STARGATECHRIS/ GETTY IMAGES
- Perpetual promptness. No event is too unimportant not to arrive early.
- Having a wave of emotion crash down while my son raises his right hand and swears the same oath I did a generation before.
- Desiring to be treated like everyone else—unless I’m waiting in a long line at an airport or praying for an upgrade to first class on a flight. Then I prefer to be treated as special.
- Sitting slack-jawed in amazement when I realize my family’s dinner was purchased by a table of teenage girls sitting across the restaurant. Thank you!
- No longer feeling compelled to prove my mettle—that urge was settled and sated while wearing a uniform.
- Critiquing any marching organization during a parade and resisting the urge to cry out “Left, left, left, right-ta, left!” if it is out of step.
- Gladly deferring saber rattling to those who never had to do it.STARGATECHRIS/ GETTY IMAGES
- Grasping the knowledge that peace is eminently more precious than any state of war, regardless of the justification. Veterans know the cost of peace firsthand, and that cost has a first name, a last name, a middle initial, and parents.
- Remembering something that Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said of his Civil War service: “In our youth our hearts were touched with fire.” I would add devotion, exhilaration, camaraderie, and fear. Our service in the armed forces determined who we were and continues to define who we are moving into the future. My father said about events in his life, “I wouldn’t give a penny to do it again, but I wouldn’t take a million dollars for the experience.” Would most veterans say the same about their service? I believe so; I know I do. Further, and more important, I consider it my honor to have served our country.
J. Mark Jackson served in the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, the 82nd Airborne Division, and the 101st Airborne Division in the war in Afghanistan.